Archive for the ‘Publication News’ Category

#WorldKidLitMonth Interview: Andrew Wong on The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Andrew Wong’s translation of the picture book The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (from a Japanese edition by Yoshimi Kusaba, illustrated by Gaku Nakagawa) has just been published ★ in English by Enchanted Lion Books. Here, I interview Andrew about the story behind the translation.

Andrew Wong holds his translation The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (center), the Japanese original (left), and a book about José Mujica, Uruguay’s 40th president.

Deborah: Hi, Andrew. Congratulations on your translation of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out! I ordered the book and fell in love with it instantly. I’ve got lots of questions to ask you. First of all, how did you get involved with this project?

Andrew: Hooray, another reader! Well, my story begins at a bookstore in Tokyo one day. The cover struck me, so I picked it up and read it. I actually didn’t buy it the first time, but I was really drawn to the illustrations—the opening montage—and the very apparent messages. The initial montage works with a preface to introduce Mujica’s speech at the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit and build up his personality, particularly his generous, frugal ways, which make him so well-loved by many Uruguayans. Those first few pages set readers up to interpret his speech, expecting to hear something “new” from him.

Deborah: That opening sequence drew me in, too, but of course I was looking at your English version. (Allow me to digress…) I had to know what the Japanese version was, so I got a copy right away. In both versions, there’s a great humor in the way Mujica’s wife sends her husband off to Rio for the +20 Summit. In the Japanese, she gives him the affectionate but unvarying greeting you’d give anyone going off to work for the day and then tacks on a request in a lovely Japanese way that doesn’t translate well. “Good-bye dear. Please feed the chickens.” Andrew, you solved that neatly with “Stay safe and feed the chickens on your way out! (Have a good trip, but don’t expect me to do your chores, Mr. President).” Okay, sorry I interrupted your story! Please continue.

Andrew: About that greeting, I left it as what it means to me, which is quite literal. The fact that Mr. President feeds the chickens on his farm just builds on his character—a person who seeks to live like everyone else. Anyway, I read the book again. And again. And realized how much I wanted to share this. That started my search for how to get the book translated into English, which led me to the SCBWI Japan Translation listserv. Then, at SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2016, I met a literary agent from Japan UNI Agency, and Japan UNI hooked me up with Enchanted Lion. A lot of it was chance. (And I think Trump played a part.)

Deborah: 2016 was your first SCBWI Translation event, and there you connected with someone who found a publisher. That was serendipitous! So often connecting with the right people seems like good luck—and some of it probably is—but behind that is usually hard work and good planning. How did you go about the translation?

Andrew: I’m not sure if that was my first event, but it was quite early in my interactions with SCBWI. Anyway, translating the short speech didn’t take very long, and I usually start with a very literal draft. But before revising, I needed more perspective, and I found it in the opening pages of the book. After some forensic work, I found out that Mujica spoke around 8 p.m. in June at the Summit where the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura had also performed (another picture book!). Anyway, that helped to eventually ground the English in environmental and social issues, which were rooted in capitalist greed, competition, and consumerism. Besides reading more on Mujica to understand his ideas better, my search for an English publisher also led me to a Traditional Chinese version (I read and speak Chinese), which had backmatter from reviewers on being content with what you have.

Deborah: I’d like to hear about the difference with the Chinese version. Was it just the backmatter or was the book itself changed at all?

Andrew: The backmatter made the difference. My initial impressions were really close to the Chinese interpretation, perhaps stemming from my Chinese Singaporean roots. So when the editors at Enchanted Lion and I dwelled on how the text could be affected by cultural perspectives, we dug deeper into the many arguments in the speech. A lot had been packed into a speech that lasted just 10 minutes. It touched on many difficult concepts—capitalism, competition, consumerism, economic growth, desire, poverty, happiness—so we realized there was room left to interpretation. To top it off, it drew on philosophy! Along the way, we also referred to the original Spanish, and it guided how we wanted to convey the speech—with clarity and passion.

Deborah (eyes popping out a little bit): So, going back to Mujica’s original speech in Spanish helped iron out some important nuances—after working with the Japanese and Chinese versions of the book.

Andrew: I did share the perspective from the two versions (as far as I know, there’s a Korean one too!), and initially I stuck close to the Japanese because we thought it was going to be straightforward. But I didn’t succeed in making polite Japanese sound quite as passionate. So we worked on the tone based on the original Spanish. As I said, there were many ideas in the speech, so we took a long, deep look because we didn’t want to leave things ambiguous. The editors and I kept a conversation going, exchanging emails in spurts over a few months, and eventually grounded the book in environmental and social issues. I believe that gave us a way to tie things together and wrap it all up nicely for everyone. It was a long and rewarding collaborative thought process, and I am grateful to everyone who was involved in shaping the English into what it is, because I certainly couldn’t have done it alone.

Deborah: No matter how long I translate, it’s always a surprise to find out how much effort and thought is required to change a book—one that seems quite straightforward—from one language to another. Did you find it necessary to simplify anything so that children could understand it? I see the target age is 8 to 12.

Andrew: Even though I don’t understand Spanish, I think the Japanese picture book did the hard work of making the difficult concepts accessible to children. Also, don’t you think Nakagawa’s illustrations work so well with the text to build a compelling argument? They also add perspective, for example, about how competition is about outdoing each other (not building each other up); how economic “growth” is driven by a fear of recession, leaving a pile of trash while a wise man stands above; and the importance of happiness for the family, livestock and all. I can go on, because there is so much to talk about in each and every spread. (My favorite is the baby in the cosmos!)

Deborah: I absolutely agree with you. I love the illustrations. I can see how they would help children understand what Mujica is saying! Now, your mention of the sweet baby in the cosmos brings me to a question I’ve got to ask. When I picked up your English translation of the book, I flipped through and was so impressed with the glorious diversity the illustrations represented. And then I got the Japanese version, and my jaw fell. To mention just a few of the differences, in the Japanese version, all the drivers in the smoggy traffic jam were men in Sikh turbans, the sweatshop workers were all brown, and the happy family of farmers and the sweet baby in the cosmos were all white! What was your role in the fortunate shift to inclusion in the English version?

Andrew: To be honest, I didn’t see the problem initially, but one day Enchanted Lion contacted me saying the Indian people caught in traffic were all unhappy Sikh men. And then the rest became easy to spot. I think the time we took to keep talking also gave us the chance to see and correct the problem, especially for a diverse readership. That experience has made me read more consciously, but I still remind myself to be constantly vigilant about stereotypes and my own biases because I don’t think I realize fast enough when they surface. (I’d be grateful to hear anyone point them out.) By the way, I’m delighted at the way the happy family at the end sits with the inclusive closing!

Deborah: The illustration of the diverse family ended the book for me on a very satisfying note. I was exhilarated and I could feel the dedication to Mujica’s words that everyone involved in making the book must have had. Any other bumps in the road you’d like to share?

Andrew: Well, to start, this was a translation of a translation. So when I was alerted to an existing English translation of the original speech online, I was really thankful, but it also got me worried. Once we were certain that the Japanese we were working from was a distinct work—an adaptation of the speech for children—the existence of another English translation became a non-issue. Enchanted Lion also provided input from the original speech in Spanish, which obviously helped in the revisions. The other huge bump was of course the ongoing pandemic, which has also impacted publishing. The launch date got pushed back a few times, so I’m glad it’s finally out. Hopefully more and more people get to read it and talk about the issues in the book, and, of course, Uruguay’s well-loved former President. It was some journey, and it continues, so I’d be happy to hear from readers!

Deborah: Thanks so much for taking the time to share all of this, Andrew. This is a gem of a book in so many ways, and learning about the background of the English version has been a fascinating lesson in how much goes into creating a translation.

The Japanese version of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out is Sekai de ichiban mazushii daitoryo no supiichi, Choubunsha Publishing (2014). 

“Festival Time” in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018

By Malavika Nataraj, Singapore
 
It’s hard to believe that January 2019 is almost over, but the month wouldn’t be complete without some exciting news to share! Avery Fischer Udagawa’s translation of the short story “Festival Time,” a tale for middle grade readers and up by Yamagata-born author Ippei Mogami, illustrated by Saburo Takada, has been featured in The Best Asian Short Stories of 2018 anthology, published by Kitaab of Singapore.
 
“Festival Time” takes place in young Masashi’s village, where plans for a spring festival are derailed because of seasonal labour migration, as farmers go to cities in search of more lucrative work. In a write-up that appeared in the Japan Times earlier this month, Udagawa said that she appreciated how Mogami told the story through a child’s eyes, and how the author handled the boy’s relationship with both his grandmother, who has dementia, and an elder with “crying palsy.”
 
Read more on “Festival Time” at Words and Pictures, the online magazine of SCBWI British Isles.

Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli Dies

By Sako Ikegami, Kobe

Isao Takahata, co-founder of Japan’s most famous animation company, Studio Ghibli, and director of the poignant film Grave of the Fireflies, passed away last week on April 5, 2018, at the age of 82. Unlike his famous partner, Hayao Miyazawa, Takahata’s works were not as flamboyantly cinematic, yet they were no less memorable or moving, addressing deeply personal themes related to childhood—its struggles and its tender beauty—often reflected upon in retrospect.

Image from Grave of the Fireflies (Toho/The Atlantic)

Grave of the Fireflies is based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka (1930-2015), based in turn on the author’s experience of the World War II bombings in Kobe. Takahata survived a similar bombing at the age of nine in neighboring Okayama prefecture, where he spent his childhood, and drew upon his experience in creating the movie.

Most recently, Takahata’s film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, based on Taketori monogatari, an ancient fairytale written during the Heian era (794-1185) and popularized as a children’s story, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2015.

Participants in SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2016 translated excerpts of Grave of the Fireflies for a workshop with Ginny Tapley Takemori, translator of Nosaka’s The Whale that Fell in Love with a SubmarineGrave of the Fireflies is forthcoming in English translation from Pushkin Press.

Online obituaries for Isao Takahata: NPRIGNSlate, The Atlantic.

An Unexpected Music: The Beast Player

Review by Alexander O. Smith, Kamakura

Fans of Nahoko Uehashi have had a long wait for another book in English translation from the internationally acclaimed fantasy author since the publication of the second volume of the Moribito series in 2009. The Beast Player is not a continuation of that, but the first English entry in an entirely new story that already spans four volumes in Japanese. Available as of March 1st from Pushkin Press, The Beast Player collects the first two volumes of the series with translation into English courtesy of Cathy Hirano, who also translated the Moribito books.

Right: Nahoko Uehashi (Goodreads)

The Beast Player follows the story of Elin, the green-eyed daughter of a “beast doctor” who looks after the Toda—massive, scaled creatures ridden into battle by the Toda warriors. Elin and her mother’s eyes mark them as members of a secretive tribe of wanderers called the Ahlyo, though her mother renounced her tribal affiliations to live amongst the Toda Stewards.

In the first half of the book, we learn how Elin comes to leave her home and settle into a new life under the care of Joeun, a lapsed academic who has taken up beekeeping. We are also introduced to some of the other major players in the world: the Yojeh, an empress who acts as the political and spiritual leader of the land, and the Aluhan, a duke who commands armies faithful to the Yojeh to protect their borders. The second half follows Elin as she rises through the ranks of students at Kazalumu, a sanctuary where they care for Royal Beasts—fantastical creatures that look something like giant wolves with wings.

Along the way, we occasionally step into the viewpoint of other characters, such as Ialu, one of a cohort of bodyguards who serve the Yojeh for life (a life often cut short by an assassin’s arrow—not all is well in the Yojeh’s realm), and Esalu, the headmistress at the sanctuary. Those with difficulty keeping the large cast of characters straight will be happy to hear there is a list at the beginning of the book that includes a family tree for the Yojeh’s royal family.

Uehashi’s story is an intriguing blend of many elements that will be familiar to fans of contemporary western fantasy—a strong female lead, a school for gifted students, the challenges of taming fantastical creatures—and other details that will feel more specifically Japanese, like meals of steamed rice and miso, and an emperor considered by many of her subjects to be divine.

One of the cornerstones of fantasy is worldbuilding, and here The Beast Player does not disappoint. Perhaps taking cues from her earlier work as an anthropologist, Uehashi lays out the tribal affiliations and politics of her world with clarity and depth. Class plays a large role in the story as well, with details such as dress and occupation following the internal logic of a carefully crafted fictional society. This enables the main narrative thread following Elin’s attempts at inter-species communication with the Royal Beasts via playing a hand-made harp to function as a kind of allegory for communication across barriers of class and race.

Language is an aspect of fantasy worldbuilding that can either be treated as an afterthought or, as is the case in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, an integral part of the story. In The Beast Player, we learn early on that the name for Elin’s people, the Ahlyo, is a bastardization of their true name, “Ao-Loh,” meaning “Guardians of the Oath.” The oath, we are told, was sworn by their people to never repeat a terrible mistake made long in the past. This is the first glimpse we are given of a secret history that is frequently hinted at throughout the story, the knowledge of which ultimately comes to play a role in informing our heroine’s actions.

Somewhat challenging is the terminology in the book. In the opening, many aspects of caring for the Toda are described with capitalized words: the Ponds, the Chambers, the Law. There are also words in an indeterminate language, such as the tokujisui medicine administered to the Toda, and political terms—the Chief Steward, the Aluhan—that can be a bit confusing at first. Here again, I turned back to the list of characters at the beginning to keep everything straight.

Thankfully, the prose is more than strong enough to carry the reader through those initial speed bumps. Hirano is a gifted stylist, and the combination of her deft word choice with Uehashi’s evocative images keeps the story flowing while bringing us moments of lyrical beauty.

In a market glutted with streamlined page-turners that take more hints from Hollywood than the classics of fantasy, The Beast Player, with its leisurely paced, meandering storytelling, can feel at times like a throwback. And yet, opening a doorway to different takes on familiar genres is exactly the aim of Pushkin Children’s Books. Given the alternative of shelves laden with dystopian Hunger Games clones I’m glad that Pushkin and Hirano opened that door and let The Beast Player, like its titular character, make an unexpected music of its own.

Right: Cathy Hirano (Skye Hohmann for BookBlast®)

Novel by Andersen Laureate to Launch in English

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Happy Year of the Dog! SCBWI Japan translator member Cathy Hirano has translated The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, winner of the international Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing (“little Nobel”) in 2014. This novel will launch in English in March 2018 in the UK, and subsequently in the US.

UK publisher Pushkin Children’s describes The Beast Player as a fantasy novel for ages 10 and up, in which heroine Elin must prevent beloved beasts from being used as tools of war.

Uehashi’s prior publications in English are the YA novels Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, which won the Batchelder Award and a Batchelder Honor, respectively, in the US. A resource list about the Moribito books, Uehashi, and Hirano appears hereThe Beast Player is available for preorder globally in paperback and ebook.

 

World Kid Lit Month Review: It Might Be An Apple by Shinsuke Yoshitake

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Shinsuke Yoshitake’s witty and amusing picture books have enjoyed a growing following since his debut title Ringo kamoshirenaiIt Might Be An Apple—appeared in Japan in 2013. Since clinching the Art Award at the 61st Sankei Juvenile Literature Publishing Culture Awards in 2014, this title has also been published in Chinese, Dutch, French, Korean, Swedish, and English (by Thames & Hudson, 2015).

Left: UK edition of It Might Be An Apple. Right: Shinsuke Yoshitake (Belio.com).

In It Might Be An Apple, Yoshitake turns an entirely mundane non-event on its head: A boy comes home to find an apple sitting on the table. His imagination jumpstarts a mish-mash of stories and plots, about what the apple might contain inside, what it might actually be, or what it could have been and could turn into. (Click on the cover above to see illustrations.) Taking things a step further, the boy wonders if the apple has desires, wishes and feelings, and whether it has a family.

Driven by an imagination that is simply inspired, the boy ponders how the apple ended up on the table, where it might have been before that, and where it might be planning to go. A bit of fear takes hold when the boy suspects that the “apple” was just waiting for a chance to take the boy’s own place in the world, or was deviously put there as kid-bait.

Eventually, hunger pangs rein in the boy’s want-away thoughts, and he gives the apple a mighty bite. He reunites with reality and the apple as it is.

The English translation stays close to the spirit of Yoshitake’s quirky original, retaining the sense of humor while offering a few subtle variations. The fun of shaping the rooms of an apple-house (by eating through its walls) is expressed by a pitch for the best house ever, complete with edible interior! The culture gap of the distant-yet-familiar Japanese ancestor is bridged by a grandma in apple disguise. Finally, a spread with all apple-kinds lined up according to a Japanese kana table, in the original, sports creative renaming in English based on the apples’ shapes and appearances.

Both the original and the translation let us journey into the world of imagination, and show us the plenitude of stories our minds can conjure at a whim.

 

 

Other English translations of Yoshitake’s work include What Happens Next? and Can I Build Another Me? (Thames & Hudson) as well as Still Stuck (Abrams), for which the original Mo nugenai (Bronze Publishing, 2015) won a Special Mention at the 2017 Bologna Children’s Book Fair Bologna Ragazzi Awards. Still Stuck is released in the US today. Happy World Kid Lit Month!

Andrew Wong joined the SCBWI Japan Translation Group listserv in 2015, when in search of a community focused on translated books for children. A business translator by trade, he finds time to introduce Japanese picture books and stories that speak to him on his blog, in hopes that they will one day find a worldwide audience.

Kenji Miyazawa’s Poem of Strength, Now a Bilingual Picture Book

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Enduring poetry lends itself to being read and reread over time, as it becomes colored by the issues of the day. The poem Ame ni mo makezu by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) heartened many people after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, which struck Miyazawa’s home region of Tohoku six years ago this month.

Miyazawa’s poem has since come out in a bilingual picture book edition: Rain Won’t. Translated by poet Arthur Binard and illustrated by Oscar-nominated animator Koji Yamamura, Rain Won’t first presents the text in its original vein and then reframes it in contemporary context, in an afterword.

Translated in first-person verse, this rendering immediately compels the reader to identify with the poet’s aspirations, at times adding sentiments implied in the original, at others preferring subtlety over wordy literalism. If Binard’s text stays true to the determined tone of the original, then Yamamura’s illustrations flesh out images of farmland and nature in Tohoku’s Iwate prefecture, which Miyazawa would have known so well.

On the cover is Mt. Iwate in the distance, and readers will just about make out a person walking past some stalks of rice in the rain toward paddies in the distance. Hidden in plain sight are other living creatures—a frog, a bee, a grasshopper. Together they frame the poem in its intended setting. The person remains at a distance in the book, acting as a guide or a projection of the poet’s aspirations, only coming at the end to stand close to the reader.


Translator Arthur Binard (photo by Kelia Li), animator-illustrator Koji Yamamura (profile photo). 


 

This textual and visual presentation is followed by Binard’s afterword, an interpretation of the poem post-March 11. It reframes and explains how the poem should serve not only as a source of strength, but also as a reminder and a rallying cry.

The book acknowledges other English translations of Ame ni mo makezu. Among them is “Strong in the Rain,” which accompanied actor Ken Watanabe’s reading of the piece on YouTube just four days after the earthquake (video from kizuna311.com), and “Unbeaten by Rain” which was read on April 11, 2011, in the interfaith service “A Prayer for Japan” at Washington National Cathedral (begins at 29:22 in video from cathedral.org).

Published in 2013 on the day the original poem is dated—November 3—Rain Won’t is available from Japan in the Japanese/English bilingual edition, and in Chinese and Korean editions.

Publishers Weekly Features Poet Misuzu Kaneko

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Are You an Echo: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko has been featured by Publishers WeeklyIf you are still trying to decide whether to reserve a copy of this picture book from Chin Music Press, due out in late September, be sure to read this in-depth introduction and have a look at a few of the beautiful illustrations. Poetry by Misuzu Kaneko, text and translation by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi. Illustrations by Toshikado Hajiri.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 8.06.03

 

 

 

AFCC 2016 (Part 1): Japanese-English Bilingual Picture Book Launched in Singapore

ST_20160528_NAJAPAN_2322659

At Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2016 in Singapore, Japan featured as Country of Focus. Events included a launch for the picture book Monster Day on Tabletop Hill (above right), written by Japanese author Akiko Sueyoshi*, translated by Cathy Hirano, and illustrated by David Liew. AFCC Publications: ISBN 978-9810993542. Photo by Kua Chee Siong/The Straits Times.

By Malavika Nataraj, Singapore

Monster Day on Tabletop Hill coverWhen an award-winning author, translator and illustrator all come together to create a book, the result can be nothing but special. That’s the first thought that comes to mind while reading Monster Day on Tabletop Hill. Author Akiko Sueyoshi’s latest work, in collaboration with acclaimed translator Cathy Hirano and sculptor-turned-illustrator David Liew, is a lively story about Forky, the little fork boy who lives in a mug-cup shaped house.

Forky is out playing in Sugar Cube Park on Monster Day, when he hears bells clanging, announcing the arrival of the guardians of clean, Grandpa Sweep-Sweep and Granny Wipe-Wipe, who sweep-sweep and wipe-wipe at everything that’s in their path, determined to get Tabletop Hill as clean as can be. It’s a particularly distressing day for carelessly wandering creatures and monsters, who may well be swept away into nothingness, never to return.

While dodging this bustling pair, Forky chances upon a glowing pumpkin in the middle of a field. And out of this pumpkin house comes a delightfully motley crew: little biscuit bats, musical chocolate skeletons and . . . the four Marshomon.

Monsters though they are, Forky isn’t afraid of the Marshomon at all, joining in their dancing and inviting them all out to play in Sugar Cube Park, where they shoot at lollipops till scrumptious ice-cream and juices ooze out.

Their wonderful adventure must end, however, when the ominous bells clang once again and the doors to Pumpkin House begin to close. A pacey and engaging read, Forky’s adventure will keep little readers in thrall from beginning to end.

Monster Day on Tabletop Hill spread 1Illustration © David Liew

This book is one more feather in the cap of award-winning children’s author Akiko Sueyoshi, who is no stranger to picture books. Her most popular story, the long-selling Mori no Kakurenbō (Hide-and-Seek in the Forest), was first published in 1978. Since then, she has won several awards for her work, including the Shogakukan Children’s Publication Culture Award in 1999 for Amefuribana Saita (When the Rainflowers Bloomed) and two Newcomer Prizes for Hoshi ni kaetta shōjo (The Girl Who Returned to the Star), as well as the Noma Award for Children’s Literature for Mama no kīroi kozō (Mummy’s Little Yellow Elephant).

Monster on Tabletop Hill is written in prose, in Sueyoshi’s typically concise style and filled with little details that set the mood of the story. The work of Cathy Hirano, translator of the Moribito series with two Batcheldor Awards under her belt, means that both English and Japanese audiences can enjoy this bilingual picture book in the best possible way. Hirano’s contribution to Sueyoshi’s story is subtle but evident; the translation is simple and energetic, faithful to the mood and setting of the original Japanese text.

Monster Day on Tabletop Hill spread 2Illustration © David Liew

Bright and quirky illustrations by David Liew—known to fans as Wolfe, the illustrator of the Ellie Belly series written by Eliza Teoh—bring this delightful little story entirely to life. The expressions on Forky’s face, the chocolate skeletons with their instruments and a grinning pumpkin house all add significant depth to the text.

The whole story with its joyful illustrations, written simply but so engagingly, carries with it an air of a fun celebration, where monsters with swirling scarves dance to the beat of drums and lost hats can be the beginning of a friendship. Sadly, the monsters must soon return to their pumpkin lair and we are forced to say goodbye to little Forky. His romp with the Marshomon and the other monsters is over far too soon.

Malavika Nataraj is the author of Suraya’s Gift: The Story Catcher Children and is an aspiring Japanese-to-English translator.

Akiko-Sueyoshi- AFCC 2013*Editors’ note: It is with great sadness that we report the death of Akiko Sueyoshi (1942–2016), the author of Monster Day on Tabletop Hill. Ms. Sueyoshi passed away due to cancer on May 28, 2016, two days after her final picture book was launched at AFCC. We understand that she was able to view the finished book before her death. News of her passing in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japanese is here. A description of her life and works in English is here. Her photo at left appears on the website of AFCC, where she spoke in 2013. After a full life in which she gladdened the hearts of countless children, may she rest in peace.

An Interview with Translator Zack Davisson

Birth of Kitaro Shigeru Mizuki Zack DavissonBy Alexander O. Smith, Kamakura

The recent death of Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015, eulogized here in The New Yorker and here in The Comics Journal) brought deserved attention to this artist’s remarkable life, and to his manga about Japanese folklore and history. His works often appeal to children and young adults. A major translator of Mizuki’s manga, Zack Davisson, agreed to an interview here about his career and approach. His latest Mizuki translation, The Birth of Kitaro, is forthcoming in May 2016.

Hello Zack, many thanks for agreeing to do this interview for us. To start us off, could you give us a little bit of your background, and tell us what you’re currently working on?

I’m a translator and writer who specializes in Japanese folklore and yokai. I wrote my MA thesis on yurei, which I turned into my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost. I currently translate several manga series, and am working on a new seven-volume collection of Shigeru Mizuki’s classic yokai comic Kitaro. The Birth of Kitaro, due out in May, is the first volume in this collection.

Literary translators often have two stories to tell about how they got where they are: the story of their growth as a translator, and the story of their growth as a writer. How did you develop your skills on both sides of the Pacific?

Growing up in Spokane, WA, writing was something I was always good at. Like some kids were good at sports, or math, words held no mystery for me. But I never thought about writing seriously—I wanted to be an artist. It took me four years of art school to come to terms with the fact that I would never be anything other than a middling talent. Certainly not able to compete on a professional level. But I still wanted to do something creative, and living in Japan in my thirties sparked the idea of doing freelance writing. I started out small, writing for my local JET newsletter. When that was well received, I moved up to paid magazine gigs for Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. Then when I was doing my master’s degree with the University of Sheffield, at their Hiroshima branch, I got into the idea of turning my thesis into a book. A book I ended up rewriting completely about 5-6 times.

Translating was an extension of all this. I did translation assignments for my MA, and I found I liked doing them. We translated a broad spectrum of works, from short story science fiction to news articles to blog posts, getting a feel for how to change styles to suit the source. My first translations were terrible; clunky and laboriously faithful to the source material. But I started to feel my way around in how to put the words on the page.

Birth of Kitaro Sample Zack Davisson Mizuki ShigeruAnd then manga translation was just pure love of comics. I’ve been a comic fan for as long as I can remember, including owning a comic book store with the massive collection that that entails. It was something I wanted to do, so I learned how to do it. I also took an already translated manga—Dr. Slump—and I went through it volume by volume doing my own translation, then compared it to the published work to see what they were doing and how they did it. [Translated by our interviewer, Alex! –ed] It was excellent practice and something I recommend to anyone who wants to translate manga.                                   Page from The Birth of Kitaro courtesy Zack Davisson

I subscribe to the 10,000 hours theory, that you need to endure a period of hard ass, grindstone practice before you become fluent in a skill. The ones who don’t make it through that particular crucible never reach the professional level.

You’ve written about supernatural Japan in Yurei: The Japanese Ghost and on your website, hyakumonogatari.com, and your translations of Mizuki Shigeru’s Kitaro comics are filled with yokai. What drew you to this genre?

Ghosts and the supernatural are something that I have always found interesting. As a kid in the 70s I used to watch this show called In Search Of, and I pored over books like Time Life’s The Enchanted World and a great gnome book that I can’t remember the title of. I liked the concept of a mysterious world of folklore. I lived in Scotland for a bit and toured around, going to the Brig o’ Doon and the fairy bridge on the Isle of Skye. I even had a Loch Ness Monster sighting.

Going to Japan was like hitting the jackpot. The country was alive with folklore and magic and mystery and lived with it in a day-to-day way that I hadn’t imagined. I was fascinated by everything, and wanted to decipher every character on every temple wall or shopkeeper’s shelf and figure out what it all meant. And when I discovered Shigeru Mizuki—that was life-changing. His characters and work were everywhere, but I had never heard of him. And the more I plunged into his world, the more I wanted to know, both about the yokai world and about Mizuki himself.

There was this whole wonderful, hidden world locked tightly in a box of which language was the key. I made it my mission to take up the torch from Lafcadio Hearn, and through translation and writing make more of this exquisite awesomeness available to an English-speaking audience.

Yurei_Japanese_Ghost_CoverOne challenge YA authors whose work spans multiple cultures grapple with is how to introduce concepts from a culture that may be unfamiliar to their readership in a way that will inform and develop a sense of place without leaving their audience behind. You’ve chosen to leave words like yurei and yokai in Japanese. What informs your choices about what to leave “unlocalized,” and what strategies have you used to introduce these terms?

I had some back-and-forth about that with my editors, but I felt strongly about keeping those words in Japanese. I think this is also part of the art of translation—knowing when to not translate a word. I read older translations from the 1800s where samurai was translated as knights and yokai as faeries, and the translations are horribly dated. They don’t read well because they are overly localized to resemble Western fairy tales. I’ve read similar translations of Arabian Nights where they did their best to scrub the “Arabian” part, going so far as to introduce Christian parallels.

That said, there has to be a reason for leaving a word in the native language. You are essentially introducing a new word into the English language. But that reason has to be beyond exoticism. Or laziness . . . like you said, it is that balance of sense of place and readability.

For me, it was that the precedent had been set centuries ago for world folklore—you don’t translate monster names. Leprechauns are leprechauns. Banshee are banshee. Penanggalan are penanggalan. These are very specific, culturally bound terms that are not possible to translate. It’s better to educate.

I used a few strategies to introduce these terms, mostly my beloved em dash. You can drop that in to give a quick clue. “We’re surround by yokai—monsters everywhere!!!” I’m not a huge fan of Translator’s Notes. If possible I want to give clues in the main text so readers don’t have to flip back and forth. I also write Yokai Files for every volume of Kitaro. The Yokai Files highlight all the yokai in each volume, and help readers get acclimatized to the names. But I think of those as “bonus features,” instead of required for the main text.

At the end of the day, you have to trust readers, even young ones. I ultimately made the argument that if kids could handle Pokémon and Pikachu, then they wouldn’t stumble over Nurikabe and Nezumi Otoko.

The Secret Biwa MusicYour work spans literary translations from classical Japanese, such as The Secret Biwa Music that Caused the Yurei to Lament, to translations of much more modern material. How does the age and style of the source material influence your creation of a style or authorial “voice” in the translation?

That’s something very important to me. I translate works from different eras because I enjoy reading from different eras. I love Charles Dickens and Nathanial Hawthorne. And when you translate works from those eras they should reflect the literary style of the times. The prose was more patient. The vocabulary was more verbose.

Translating from different eras flexes different literary muscles as well, which I enjoy. Although I can’t overdo it. I spent a couple months doing some very early Edo translations, and it made my brain hurt. I needed to do some modern manga as a break after that!

Tell me about what’s it’s been like working on Mizuki Shigeru’s comics. His output spans a wide range of genres and readership ages. How aware are you of your target audience’s age when you translate, and what do you change, if anything, when translating for younger readers?

Absolutely I am aware. I didn’t translate Showa: A History of Japan with the same vocabulary that I used to translate Kitaro—nor did Mizuki write them at the same level. That’s one of the things I love about Mizuki, is that he offers such a broad range of depth and styles in his work. I did a translation of some of his art commentary, and people were amazed that the same person who wrote Kitaro was capable of such poetic language. Working with Drawn & Quarterly is great in that they want to present a complete picture of Mizuki as an artist, and have allowed me to work on some things that I never thought would get English translations.

With Kitaro, the goal is “kid friendly.” That means I follow the basic reading level rules, use simpler vocabulary and shorten the sentences. But I don’t dumb down the concepts, and every now and then I throw in a word that kids might have to look up. I think that’s important. When I was a young reader, I liked books that challenged my vocabulary. I want to pass on that feeling of accomplishment.

Narrow Road Zack Davisson CoverYou collaborated with artist Mark Morse on an original comic, Narrow Road. Where did the idea for that project originate? How did you divide storytelling duties between yourself as the writer and Mark as the artist?

I think many translators eventually have the itch to do something of their own. My collaboration with Mark was kind of dipping my toes in those waters. I had seen him on Twitter and was really taken with his art. I reached out to him, and he was open to collaboration. We had similar ideas, of doing something with Buddhist traveler’s tales in a non-didactic way. So we did a test story and found that we enjoyed working together.

With comics it is hard to say how the storytelling duties are split. I give him a full script, which includes panel-by-panel breakdowns and art suggestions, but he has plenty of room to improvise. Sometimes I will insist on things, especially if they affect the pacing of the story, or the timing of a gag. But his sense is great and he always improves on the initial ideas. I have only had him go back and redraw something once, but that was because I had a new idea once the art was done.

We hope to keep going. The reception has been good, and doing the work is rewarding. I just sent him the next script yesterday. We’ll see where the Narrow Road takes us!

Have you collaborated with other artists/editors/translators/writers? What different arrangements have you tried, and how did they work out? Anything to recommend to YA authors or translators contemplating collaborative projects?

My experience with editors has been 100 percent positive. I don’t know if that is just luck, but it has been good experiences all around. My personal goal as a translator is to get as many of my words on the page as possible. I generally get everything up there, with only a word or two changed for a 500-page comic. But even then I go over the finished version to see what changes were made and try to learn from that.

A new collaboration is always tricky, as you have to sort of feel each other out. I am starting a new project with an Italian artist, as well as doing some work with different editors at a new company, so that will be interesting.

If possible, it is nice to establish a relationship over time. When I first started with Drawn & Quarterly, there was more back-and-forth with editorial, especially on how to present Mizuki’s language. But having worked together for years now we are in synchronicity, and have developed a wonderful level of trust. You’ll see the fruits of that in the latest Kitaro, where I was able to add quite a bit of additional content to the main text. It’s a lot of fun!

Showa-A History of JapanMany YA authors/translators teach, edit, or write outside their main genre. Is translation/writing your full-time occupation?

Unfortunately, writing and translation does not pay enough to serve as my sole occupation. I have a full-time job on top of my translation/writing work: writing and editing for a big company. I try to keep my day job private, although everyone at my office knows about my “other life.” It’s a tough balance—I essentially have two full time jobs, and that means sacrifice.

When I started tackling Mizuki’s manga Showa: A History of Japan, I knew that I would have to make changes to my life if I wanted to be successful. So I cut out a lot of things that people do for fun in favor of long stretches of isolation propped over a keyboard with a tankobon (paperback) propped open. Sometimes I wish I could just chill out and play a video game or something, but I don’t have the time. I haven’t played a video game since about 2008.

On the plus side, my regular job gives me the luxury of only taking on freelance work that I am personally interested in. I don’t have to do crap work just to pay the bills. And each manga I translate or book I write is an individually hand-crafted work of love.

Some YA authors/translators struggle with self-promotion. You’ve been a presence at many conventions, such as Comicon and Sakuracon. How important has it been to you to attend cons, either as a presenter or an attendee? Any other promotional activities that you would recommend to others?

Zack Davisson Bio PicI am a huge extrovert, so self-promotion is part of my package. I tell publishers that when they hire me, they not only get the translation but they get my enthusiasm as well. To me that is a key part of the work, especially conventions. I just did Emerald City Comic Con, and put over a hundred copies of Mizuki’s works into hands of people who had never heard of him before. Those are people who would have never tried his work if I hadn’t been there.

I also do presentations, which is something I personally enjoy. I am trained as a public speaker and taught for years, so standing up in front of an audience is something I am comfortable with. I also publish articles on various sites, like my recent Confessions of a Manga Translator article for The Comics Journal, which got a surprising amount of attention. Each article or presentation serves dual function as an advertisement. Getting your name out there is important to generating sales, as well as getting new work opportunities. Networking is essential. I just today signed a new contract for a translation that came directly from a conversation at Emerald City Comic Con.

Recently I have been trying to build my Twitter network of translators. After the “Confessions of a Manga Translator” article, I have been hearing from fellow professionals and it has been great. Twitter is a great tool for making connections with people that you are geographically separated from.

Did you face any early challenges to finding success in your translation and writing?

Getting someone to take a chance on that first work is the greatest challenge. Until you have your first published work—until you make that move to professional—you are a gamble for publishers. They don’t know if you can meet deadlines. They don’t know the quality of work you can deliver. They don’t know if you will make their jobs easier or more difficult.

I told Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros that he changed my life by giving me my first job translating Showa: A History of Japan. Everything has built on that initial chance he gave me.

Kitaro Meets NurarihyonYou work on Japanese material, but live in the US. What challenges and advantages does your choice of location present, both in “keeping in touch” with both cultures, and in finding and developing projects?

My wife and most of my friends are Japanese, so I still feel very much surrounded by the culture. We speak Japanese at home. My wife works at a Japanese restaurant. It’s very much a little bubble in the greater society. Obviously I don’t have that immersion like when I lived in Japan, but I never feel far away from it. And my translation work keeps me into the language.

The thing I am most out of touch with is pop culture. I don’t know what’s cool anymore, or what the catch phrases are. Fortunately, I specialize in classic manga and Edo period ghost stories so that usually isn’t too much of an issue!

The same thing happened when I lived in Japan. Coming back to the US required me to relearn what had been going on in my native land while I was gone. I’m nostalgic for the times when I had no idea who the Kardashians were or Justin Bieber.

A nostalgia I think we all share! Well, this has been fascinating getting a glimpse into your work and interests. Thank you very much for your time. I’d like to finish up by having you tell us about any other upcoming projects you’re excited about.

I am most excited for the new Kitaro series from Drawn & Quarterly, and Queen Emeraldas from Kodansha. Those are both dream projects for me. Leiji Matsumoto, creator of Queen Emeraldas, is really responsible for me even doing what I do, because seeing his Galaxy Express 999 and Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato) years ago completely enamored me of Japanese culture and language. So getting to work on his comics is a huge deal. And Kitaro . . . that’s the reason I got into manga translation.

A good decade ago I stood on a friend’s bar in Osaka and made a drunken vow that I would bring Shigeru Mizuki’s work to English, and finally holding a printed copy of The Birth of Kitaro in my hands feels like a fulfillment of that vow.

Above: Kitaro meets Nurarihyon, second volume in the Kitaro series, is due out in October 2016.

Alexander O. Smith is translator of thirty novels from the Japanese, including Brave Story and The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe, The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, and the Guin Saga series by Kaoru Kurimoto. He is also known for localization and production of video games, and is cofounder of publisher Bento Books.